Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan spent more than £66,000 on her government debit card during 108 days as Secretary of State for International Trade in 2021, figures compiled by the Labour Party reveal. Was the spending justified?
The £66,924 spent by Trevelyan on 50 transactions (an average of £1,338) on her GPC card during her 108-day period as Secretary of State for International Trade (DIT) is actually not very much compared with other cabinet ministers; some spent millions, but not – or not always – on living the high life.
Governments have been consistently unapologetic about the use of government procurement cards (GPCs) since they were introduced by the Labour government in 1997, and there is no suggestion that Trevelyan or other ministers or officials, more than 8,000 of whom carry the cards, have done anything wrong.
But Labour does suggest in a dossier, The GPC Files published this week, that the spending lacks transparency and can be wasteful and excessive*.
When GPCs were introduced 26 years ago the aim was “to increase the efficiency and convenience of procurement for relatively low-value goods or services, especially where such purchases needed to be made at speed, in bulk, or by staff out on the road”, according to “The GPC Files.”
In 2012 the cards were reviewed by the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), resulting in a report with recommendations on how their use should be controlled and improved.
In 2017 the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) published guidance which described the cards as “the recommended method of purchasing and paying for goods or services under £10,000.00”.
The CCS said there were “many benefits to using payment cards, such as reducing procurement process times, operational efficiencies and supporting the government’s prompt payment initiative for small and medium enterprises.”
In April 2020, at the start of the Covid pandemic, the Cabinet Office announced more changes:
- Departments were told to identify “key users” of the card, and give them a single transaction limit of £20,000, an overall monthly spending limit of £100,000, and a monthly spend of over £100,000 if necessary to meet business needs;
- Departments were also told to “ensure an appropriate number of staff have the authority to use these cards”, which, according to the Labour dossier, meant increasing the number of card-holders
- As an amendment to the ‘prohibited purchases’ section, departments were “encouraged to increase the use of GPCs…to accelerate payment to businesses, and open all relevant categories of spend to enable these cards to be used more widely.”
“Increasing use of procurement cards”, said the Cabinet Office, can improve organisations’ efficiency and accelerate payment to their suppliers while still ensuring robust controls. Action is required to ensure procurement cards are used to best effect to speed up payment and ensure the right people in the public sector are able to access the goods and services they need quickly.
“Procurement cards should be the preferred method for purchasing all goods and services, up to the card limit, unless existing departmental systems are faster. This does not alleviate accounting officers of their usual duties to ensure that spending delivers value for money and proportionate controls to payments are undertaken as necessary for continuity of supply of critical services.”
According to Labour, these new guidelines – issued in emergency circumstances in the very early stages of the pandemic – have not been revised, and are still in place on the Cabinet Office website..
The Labour Party dossier comments:
“While considerable thought and urgency was clearly applied by the Cabinet Office to adapting the policy on use of GPCs for the demands of the pandemic, it is notable that – by comparison – several of the most significant recommendations from the NAO and the PAC in 2012 for improving Whitehall’s controls and transparency over GPC use have still never been adopted.”
Key facts from Labour’s research into GPC data for calendar year 2021 include:
- The 14 main Whitehall departments – minus the Ministry of Defence, for which data are not available due to accounting failures – spent a net total of at least £145.5mn using GPCs. That compares to a total of £84.9 million spent by the equivalent departments in 2010/11, an increase of £60.6 million, or 71.38%, in ten years;
- Spending in most departments has seen a modest decline, but that has been more than offset by large increases in two main areas – Ministry of Justice spending has risen from £36.9m to £84.9m and now accounts for almost 58% of the total;
- Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spending is 3.7 times higher than the previous combined total of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DfID) (£34.4m versus £9.3m), and now makes up 24% of the total;
- The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) also spent more than double its 2010-11 level in 2021, rising from £3.65m to £8.6m;
- The largest GPC payments to one company in 2021 were made by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to a provider of food supplies to the Prison Service, with 28,530 transactions over £500 worth a total of £54.9mn (an average of just over £1,924 per transaction).
In most cases involving Trevelyan and the DIT, the Labour dossier gives the names of the suppliers of the goods or services that she or the DIT received but no other details. Seven payees are simply listed as “hotel”. The largest single payment by Trevelyan of £3,941 was to a supplier of software services.
The DIT spent a total of £331,320 on GPCs in 2021; examples included in the dossier include:
- On 18 October 2021, in support of the 24th annual UK-Taiwan trade talks, DIT paid an unnamed hotel £1,150 to host a lunch for 10 people (working out at £115 per head), six of them UK representatives (led by Labour peer Lord Faulkner, the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Taiwan) and just four of them from the Taiwan Representative Office.
- On 20 October 2021, DIT officials treated their counterparts attending the G7 Trade Working Group meeting to dinner at [a London restaurant] at a total cost of £1,120 for 17 attendees (just under £66 per head). DIT ministers have stated that no-one present at the dinner consumed alcohol.
The biggest government spender on a GPC was Robert Buckland, Justice Secretary at the time, who spent £46,701,496 in 244 days. Much of it went on food supplies for the Prison and Probation Service.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) seems to have had a practice of paying for prison food on its Secretary of State’s card; Dominic Raab spent over £32mn over 252 days at the (MoJ) and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCD0), much of it again on food supplies for the Prison and Probation Service.
The largest GPC payments to one company in 2021 were made to a provider of food supplies to the Prison Service, with 28,530 transactions over £500 worth a total of £54.9mn (an average of just over £1,924 per transaction), according to the dossier.
Boris Johnson, during a full year as Prime Minister, spent £1,083,425 on 1,001 transactions involving a wide range of goods and services
The department with the lowest GPC spend in 2021 was the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which spent £60,186, and Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, had the lowest individual ministerial spend at £10,493 apart from Ashok Shama at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy with £4,193; but in Sharma’s case the spend was over only eight days in office.
The DIT’s £331,320 was the third lowest and four more departments (Culture, Media and Sport; Health and Social Care; Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and Education) spent under £1mn.
Apart from those already mentioned, Transport, Treasury, Cabinet Office, Home Office, Work & Pensions and Defra each spent over £1mn. Total departmental spend was £145,501,412.
According to Labour, key concerns remain about GPCs, including lack of transparency; accounting failures; end of year spending sprees; alcohol; gifts, hospitality and restaurants; catering, events and entertainment; expensive transport; Foreign Office furnishing; Amazon purchases; corporate branding; and training and awaydays.
The Labour Party said:
“Ministers themselves are often directly culpable for the wasteful and excessive GPC spending taking place to cater for their accommodation, their travel, and their refreshments at the public’s expense – in other words, they are a central part of the problems exposed in this report, not simply neutral bystanders with no stake in the issues raised…
“These may be called government procurement cards, but too many in government have clearly forgotten that it is the public footing the bill. That would be irresponsible at the best of times, but during the worst cost of living crisis for generations, it is simply unforgivable. That will all change under Labour, but it should not have to wait until then. It is high time to bring the use of these cards under control.”
John O’Connell, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said:
“Taxpayers will be shocked by the examples of waste uncovered in this investigation. While households are toiling under a record tax burden, politicians and bureaucrats have been splashing our cash on frivolities and five-star travel.
“It’s high-time ministers stood up for hard-working Brits and got a grip on wasteful spending once and for all.”
But some others take a different view. The news magazine The Week headlined:
“Will the ‘GPC files’ attack on Tory expenses come back to bite Labour? Opposition say new data highlights Conservatives’ ‘lavish spending’ but critics warn accusations are overblown.”
Lord (Daniel) Hannan, writing on thse ConservativeHome website, said: “Shall I tell you what annoys me the most [about Labour’s dossier]? It is the way that arguments over these relatively trivial sums distract attention from the vast amounts that our government machine is still needlessly spewing out, despite the lockdown debt, the continuing deficit, and the supposed need for tax rises.”
Anne-Marie Trevelyan has been approached by North East Bylines for a response.
Most of us would find life more difficult without the convenience of our credit or debit card, and there is no reason in principle why ministers and officials should not use them too when going about their daily business on the public’s behalf. The issues they raise are not so much the method of payment but what the money is spent on and how the payments are controlled.
Many people will be surprised (but not necessarily angry) that GPCs are apparently in habitual use by the Secretary of State for Justice to pay for prison food supplies; the risk to the public purse seems to be that with so many thousands of small sums involved, they will be nodded through without scrutiny.
The public are likely to be more concerned that the cards are sometimes used to pay for hotels and entertaining. It is the latter type of spending at the taxpayers’ expense that tends of cause outrage, particularly if alcohol is involved.
In 2012 the PAC recommended a ban on alcohol purchases, but 11 years later it is still left to individual departments to determine their own policy. According to Labour’s dossier departmental polices range from blanket bans at Transport and Education to a relatively permissive policy at the FCDO, where the provision of drinks is an accepted part of diplomatic engagement.
“The common theme from those departments that allow the purchase of alcohol on GPCs”, says Labour, “is that doing so is only acceptable when the primary recipients are external guests to whom the provision of alcohol as hospitality is necessary and appropriate, whether over meals, at receptions, or in the form of gifts”.
Control is a separate issue from the principle, and there are always likely to be some abuses of the rules. According to Labour’s dossier, the government said in 2012 that 99 cases of GPCs being inappropriately used had been identified in the previous 3 years,
No cross-government figures have been given since, but most individual departments have provided their own figures for 2019-22 in response to parliamentary questions. Seven departments said not a single payment had been fraudulently charged to their GPCs over the period 2019-20 to 2021-22.
Of the rest, the Home Office reported 6 such incidents, the Cabinet Office 5, DCMS and Defra 4, the MoD 3, and the Department of Trade 1. In all cases, they said they were recompensed for the losses in full, which amounted to £14,888. The FCDO and MOJ provided no responses, saying they could only do so at disproportionate cost.
*The GPC Files can be read in full here,